Review: United Polaris Lounge Chicago O’Hare Airport

Last December United opened their first Polaris Lounge at Chicago O’Hare Airport. This is their new lounge experience for international premium cabin passengers, and is supposed to go along with their new Polaris onboard experience.

Unfortunately since then United hasn’t opened any other Polaris Lounges, though they’re supposed to open more next year.

Back in September the cheapest ticket that came with access to the Polaris Lounge was an Air Canada ticket from Chicago to Toronto (I’ll talk more about the lounge’s entry requirements below). So I booked one of those, since I figured I was long overdue for a review of the lounge.

Well, the same day I booked that ticket United changed their policy so that those traveling on Air Canada no longer got Polaris Lounge access. The timing of this was bizarre, as I had no previous knowledge of the policy change. United reached out to invite me to use the Polaris Lounge for my trip since I had booked prior to the policy change, so I took them up on that (I still flew Air Canada business class from Chicago to Toronto).

I was excited to check out the lounge to see if it lived up to the hype, and also to compare it to American’s new Flagship Lounges. Before I get too deep into this review I should mention that Travis reviewed the Polaris Lounge Chicago shortly after it opened, as well as the extensive a la carte dining experience.

United Polaris Lounge access rules

United’s Polaris Lounge can be accessed by passengers traveling same day on an international longhaul flight in Polaris, even if the longhau flight doesn’t depart directly out of Chicago. In other words, someone traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles to Sydney would have access. Beyond that, passengers traveling nonstop longhaul in a Star Alliance premium cabin out of Chicago the same day get access. That means that those traveling on ANA, Lufthansa, etc., get access, but only on departure and when flying nonstop out of Chicago.

However, the Polaris Lounge isn’t open to Star Alliance Gold members. Instead they’ll be directed to the United Club.

United Polaris Lounge Chicago location

The United Polaris Lounge Chicago is located in the C Concourse of Terminal 1. When you clear security at Terminal 1 you’ll have to follow the signage towards the C Concourse, which requires taking the underground tunnel.


Chicago O’Hare Airport Terminal 1 

When you take the escalator up from the underground tunnel you’ll see a customer service desk, and just to the left of that is the entrance to the Polaris Lounge.


Chicago O’Hare Airport Terminal 1 

There’s a beautiful entryway with a couple of United Polaris Lounge signs.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago exterior


United Polaris Lounge Chicago signage

United Polaris Lounge Chicago hours

The Polaris Lounge at O’Hare Airport is open daily from 7:15AM until 9:00PM. That strikes me as a rather late opening time. While it covers all the passengers nonstop out of Chicago to longhaul destinations, it’s not ideal for those connecting onto a longhaul flight, as in many cases that requires departing earlier. I was at the lounge right when it opened, and there were a couple dozen people standing outside, and several of them commented on how they were surprised the lounge wasn’t open yet.

United Polaris Lounge Chicago review

To start the review I should mention that presently United’s Polaris Lounge Chicago is 12,782 square feet, with seating for 204 people. However, it’s in the process of being expanded, and once that’s complete this winter, it should be 16,292 square feet, with seating for 277 people.

Now let’s get into the actual review.

Inside the entrance was a welcome desk, along with a cool blue lighting fixture.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago entrance

Past that are a few sit-down customer service desks, where agents can help with any travel needs.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago customer service desks

The lounge is a bit smaller than I was visualizing it to be. Past the entrance is the first main part of the lounge, which features two “aisles” you can walk down. On the far end of the room are a series of tables that seat two people each, along a booth. Then in the center section are these really cool semi-private back-to-back cubicles.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating

I love these semi-private seats, and think they’re so well designed. When I sat in them I really felt like I had my own private space. Each seat has chargers, and also a table that can be pulled out, in addition to the side table. This is an absolutely brilliant seating option, as it makes you forget just how crowded the lounge can get.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating

Past that main area of the lounge and to the left was the bar area, which is in an “L” shape. In the far corner of the below picture you’ll see the wine lockers where frequent guests can store their own wine.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago bar

Surrounding the bar is the lounge’s sit-down dining area, where they have waiter service and a la carte dining. There are five tables along the wall, which are definitely the ones to select, if possible, since they feel quite private.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago dining area

Then there are another seven tables along the other side of the bar that are part of the restaurant as well. These tables feel awfully exposed as they’re just sort of along the center of the lounge’s walkway, so like I said, I’d choose one of the other tables if possible.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago dining area


United Polaris Lounge Chicago dining area

The rest of the seating in the lounge is pretty standard airline lounge seating. There are a bit over a dozen seats to the right of the main room, which is also where the buffet is located.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating


United Polaris Lounge Chicago buffet

Then there are some more seats to the side of the dining area and bar.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating

Then the other main part of the lounge is back by the windows, where there are more tables, semi-private cubicles, and lounge chairs.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating


United Polaris Lounge Chicago seating

United Polaris Lounge Chicago showers, daybeds, and bathrooms

Rather than having bathrooms that are separated by gender with shared facilities, the lounge instead has about a dozen unisex bathrooms, down a hallway right near the entrance.


United Polaris Lounge bathrooms

I love the fact that they have these private bathrooms, rather than the shared ones you’ll find in both lounges.


United Polaris Lounge bathrooms

The lounge also has shower suites and daybeds, which are located at one end of the lounge, in a separate room that says “Valet Services” on the door.


United Polaris Lounge valet services

There’s a person there who can get you a shower suite or daybed, and you just have to provide your boarding pass.


United Polaris Lounge valet services desk

The lounge has five semi-private daybeds, with slippers, eyeshades, and pillows (the same Saks Fifth Avenue ones they have onboard). This is a nice feature, though at the same time it would be nice if they had blankets so that people could get really comfortable. Heck, I wish they had gone all the way and put in proper beds, but I can’t blame them for not doing it, given how many people have access to this lounge.


United Polaris Lounge daybeds


United Polaris Lounge daybeds

The lounge has seven shower rooms, along a starry hallway.


United Polaris Lounge showers

The shower suites are great, with two shower heads, toilets, etc. There are also further travel essentials available on request.


United Polaris Lounge shower suites


United Polaris Lounge shower suites


United Polaris Lounge Saks Fifth Avenue towels

United Polaris Lounge Chicago buffet dining

I was at the Polaris Lounge from about 7:15AM until 1PM, so I had plenty of time to check out the food selection. The main buffet area is just outside the entrance to the shower suites and daybeds, and the presentation is very nice.


United Polaris Lounge Chicago buffet

Let’s start with the breakfast selection. There were pastries, scones, bagels, fresh fruit, salmon, mini-yogurt parfaits, etc.


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet

In terms of hot options, there was oatmeal, bacon, sausage, and three types of frittatas (vegetable, parmesan and cheddar, and sausage and bacon), each served in individual skillets.


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet


United Polaris Lounge breakfast buffet

While the presentation was nice, the buffet was a bit more limited than I was expecting. The lounge has a sit-down dining area which I’ll talk more about in a bit, but I was surprised by how limited the buffet was. Furthermore, the portions of many of the pre-plated items were tiny. They looked beautiful, but they were almost all just a bite.

On the wall opposite the buffet was a drink station with freshly brewed Illy coffee and tea.


United Polaris Lounge coffee & drink station

However, at the bar you can order a freshly made cappuccino, americano, latte, etc. I love the fact that they have espresso based drinks made fresh, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a US airline lounge (even American’s Flagship First Dining doesn’t have this). Yum!


United Polaris Lounge Illy cappuccino

Later in the morning they switched from breakfast to lunch. I’ll let the pictures of that speak mostly for themselves.


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet

Again, the lounge seems to have a love affair with these little skillet things, which is a cute concept.


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet


United Polaris Lounge lunch dessert

United Polaris Lounge Chicago sit-down dining

In addition to the buffet, the lounge has a dozen tables where you can have an a la carte meal. I was shocked by how few people chose to partake in this. The servers working this area were actively trying to get people to eat here. As people would walk by they’d say “do you want to have breakfast or lunch? We have a whole menu.” But almost no one took them up on it, and I never saw more than half of the tables full, even when the lounge was otherwise packed.

This is totally puzzling to me. Do people think there’s a catch, that there’s a cost to it, or something? Given that the buffet selection isn’t otherwise huge, I was surprised.

Anyway, upon sitting down I was welcomed by Carly, who would be taking care of me. She presented me with a menu and a drink list on a cool wooden board.


United Polaris Lounge menu

The drink list read as follows:

The breakfast menu read as follows:

The lunch and dinner menu read as follows:

United Polaris Lounge lunch buffet

Kudos to United for a very impressive drink list. While Veuve isn’t my favorite champagne, it’s certainly not cheap, so I was surprised they had that. Carly informed me that the soup of the day was chicken gumbo.

I placed my order a few minutes after sitting down.

To drink I ordered the “bubbles & yellow jacket” cocktail. Is there anyway to order that without sounding super pretentious?


United Polaris Lounge — bubbles & yellow jacket cocktail

For the starter I ordered the seared tuna tataki, with mizuna greens, pickled carrot and daikon, and ponzu dressing.


United Polaris Lounge sit-down dining — seared tuna tataki

YUM! The dish was tiny, but delicious, and beautifully presented.

United Polaris Lounge sit-down dining — seared tuna tataki

For the main course I ordered the shrimp and grits with crispy okra and tomato stew (I asked for it without the ham). Once again, the dish was excellent.


United Polaris Lounge sit-down dining — shrimp and grits

To finish off the meal I ordered the warm croissant bread pudding per Carly’s suggestion, which came with a bourbon cream anglaise. It was unbelievably good. It took a lot of restraint not to lick the mini-pan it was served in.


United Polaris Lounge sit-down dining — warm croissant bread pudding

What a fantastic dining experience. I couldn’t believe I was in a business class lounge operated by a US airline. While it didn’t have as relaxed of an ambiance as American’s Flagship First Dining, the food quality and service was just as good, in my opinion.

United Polaris Lounge bottom line

United’s new Polaris Lounge really impressed me. There were parts that exceeded my expectations, but also some areas for improvement.

What impressed me most was the sit-down dining experience, which was surprisingly under-utilized. The food was exceptional, and it’s great to see such an experience available to business class passengers traveling on a US airline. In terms of other impressive features, I loved the freshly made espresso beverages, the individual bathrooms, the extensive wine and cocktail selection, and the daybeds.

What disappointed me somewhat was the buffet selection. While the food was nicely presented, the portions were tiny, and the selection wasn’t that great. American’s Flagship Lounges have a significantly better selection of food available at their buffet, though at the same time they don’t have the sit-down dining option.

The other issue is that the lounge got really crowded. While it was fairly quiet until about 11AM, it really filled up then, and I imagine it only gets fuller in the afternoons, before all the flights to Europe. Fortunately United is in the process of expanding the lounge, though I have to wonder if a few thousand extra square feet will make much of a difference.

The last issue is the pace at which United is opening these lounges. They’ve had huge delays, and it’ll probably be the middle of next year before the next Polaris Lounge opens, meaning it’ll be at least 18 months between two openings. American, on the other hand, opened their first Flagship Lounge in May, and will have four open before the end of the year.

All things considered, United’s Polaris Lounge is a winner. I was really impressed. I had heard that they’ve done a lot of cost cutting in the lounge, but if so, I certainly didn’t notice it (unless the buffet used to be better).

If you’ve visited United’s Polaris Lounge, what was your experience like?

Enjoy this review? Check out hundreds of other reports on airlines, hotels, and airport lounges worldwide!

Comments

  1. United is somehow shocked, SHOCKED, that when you build a nice lounge, many more people actually want to come to it! What a concept.

    I look forward to the inevitable chair fighting at the likely-too-small EWR Polaris lounge.

  2. I was extremely impressed with this lounge on my visit before flying ORD-FRA-JNB on LH in C class. Probably my favorite in the US. The food was excellent, as was the drink selection. Really didn’t care about the small buffet plates — I think that’s by design, as you’re supposed to take your substantial meals sit-down style.

    I couldn’t believe it was United. Was a great start to our trip, and they blew LH Biz class lounges out of the water.

    When flying Star Alliance in the future, I’d go out of my way to route via ORD or wherever there’s a Polaris lounge open as my US International gateway (don’t live in a *A int’l gateway city)… seriously, we were that impressed.

  3. Do you think the Polaris Lounge model is sustainable, in terms of 1) the ability to serve many customers a le carte meals (is it restricted to dining area only?) and 2) the cost (it seems really nice but is the delay in other locations related to funding?)

    I just have a gut feeling that UA will ‘enhance’ the lounge by lowering services and amenities standard…

  4. Ben, I must say you are doing a fantastic job keeping the quality content flowing while you’re in Israel, which must be hard. Keep it up! 🙂

  5. I’ve visited several times this year and the experience has always been top-notch.

    While it does get a bit busy in the afternoons, it’s not too hard to get a table for sit-down dining. Definitely try the ribeye, it’s freaking delicious!

    P.S. you forgot to mention how you can control the temperature of the heated floors in the shower suites. Not even The Private Room offers that luxury 🙂

  6. It seems way too expansive and over-the-top for the few passengers that are actually eligible to use it… If they put all of their efforts into these lounges and continue to restrict access to United Club members, I can see their membership base declining significantly.

  7. Wow that menu looks amazing although the presentation of that tuna starter made me laugh – it looks like it was plated by a child.
    If I was flying *A long haul to Europe from the US I would go out of my way to fly from ORD to experience this lounge. I imagine it would be absolutely packed to the rafters in the late afternoon/early evening when most European flights depart though.

    As to why no one was utilising the restaurant I can only imagine that they assume it is either terrible, or there is a cost attached given it’s very unusual to have a la carte in a J lounge, especially in the US

  8. I’ll be flying Polaris to Europe next spring, and have the option of connecting either in Chicago or in Houston. I’ve read the planes are much nicer out of Houston (I believe they’re the former Continental planes) and that the 777-200s they fly from Chicago are not great in business class. I’m leaning towards Houston for the nicer plane, but this lounge sounds awesome and if I picked Chicago I’d have a 5 hour layover to enjoy it! Do you think it’s worth it to skip the Polaris lounge for a slightly nicer plane? (This will be my first time flying biz and I want to be sure to do it right!)

  9. @Lucky and others:

    How does the look of the Polaris lounge compare to that of the United Club/Global First lounge at Heathrow T2. I was blown away by how good they looked especially compared to United’s lounges in the States.

  10. Since you’re becoming quite famous and you’re getting all these invitations for the special experiences, which I’m sure you like and want more of. But it also doesn’t help us, the common traveler, get the real experience if these companies are going out of their way to accommodate a celebrity like you with top notch service most of us won’t get, so you can write up a very positive blog post. Such as El Al putting their head FA on your flight.

  11. I was there shortly after Travis and if you compare his pics to yours you’ll see they increased seating. The banquette tables were small and round before while your pics show a denser configuration of square tables. They’ve also put a lot of armchairs near the buffet. This area used to be poorly utilized, although a nice place to sit by the window, with two large coffee tables with a few large modern lounge chairs around them.

  12. Thanks for the review! Looks better than Classified….

    Interesting they have Crown Royal XR- the rest of their whiskey slections are fairly low endish but the XR is at a higher price point….

    FDW

  13. “As to why no one was utilising the restaurant I can only imagine that they assume it is either terrible, or there is a cost attached given it’s very unusual to have a la carte in a J lounge, especially in the US”

    Initially there was signage and an announcement by the staff that tipping was expected at normal levels. This has disappeared and stopped.

    I have never had a meal there because I haven’t had time and/or I am about to get on an 12+ flight which I will want to eat a meal on even if the food in the club is better. If I were on a <10 hour flight I think I would try to schedule my meal there so I could go directly to sleep and bypass the meal.

  14. On a first class ticket to Rome, I spent 30 mins in the lounge last month. Not a single seat to sit down in. No place to dine in. Bar a mob scene. Sat outside and waited for my flight. They were refusing entry to new people on business class tickets.

    Victim of their own success.

  15. I understand the expanded Polaris space Lucky mentioned is coming from the existing UA Club in C, which will be smaller when it reopens.

  16. I think it’s mostly people don’t have the time for a sit down meal. For breakfast nearly everything is on the buffet in some form or another.

    Never stopped me in the slightest though. I’ve think I’ve had everything ing on both menus at least twice. Delicious each and every time. I just wish to God they’d get LAX or SFO open.

  17. I was impressed with the Polaris lounge too. I would have liked more active attention to the unisex bathrooms, but the rest of the staff were amazing. The afternoon buffet was nice. I didn’t try the a la carte dining because I was going to save room for the flight. I wish I hadn’t! United has cut back on the in air catering quality and no more wine flights. Now I really wish I’d checked out the lounge cocktail menu….

  18. LOVE this lounge, although I prefer to get my long-hauls out of the way through LAX or SFO (being based out of San Diego) its always a pleasure to visit this lounge if going through ORD. The private dining is my favorite part! I always hope for at least an hour to spend there alone.

  19. @Xtina
    Is this true about UA stopping the wine flights for Polaris international travel? They don’t use those 3-glass holders anymore?

  20. Ben,

    Are all the dishes on the menu are prepared and made fresh, or do we know if they are utilizing frozen ingredients to save time and money? Such as the fried chicken, meatballs, hamburger? Thanks

  21. I’m flying United Polaris out of SFO at the end of March, and was hoping the lounge would be open by then. I don’t think so.

  22. Great review.

    I used the ORD Polaris lounge in August, on a Saturday afternoon. It was just as Lucky described, excellent but filled up around 4pm.

    Expanding the capacity by about 70 people doesn’t sound like much.

    To get people to use the sit down meal service (I had the seared rib eye) United should be stressing the convenience of eating before you fly (especially on TATLs) and being able to go straight to sleep after takeoff. I tried that and couldn’t sleep because of the meal service around and over me (aisle seat in the middle four of a 772).

    To the person that asked how it compares to the Heathrow UC, I’d give Heathrow the edge. It’s much bigger and feels more spacious, and I prefer the workbenches either side of the huge bar. Aside from the sit down meal option and the “beds” (both available in the Global First lounge) and slightly poorer quality buffet food LHR is already Polaris quality and more. Indeed I’d leave the LHR UC as is and have the GFC lounge converted to a Polaris “add on” just for the extras.

  23. Wow, this is impressive, especially for United. Looks great. Especially since this is just a glorified business class lounge.

    I’m still convinced if Smisek had wanted to improve the airline after the merger, they wouldn’t be phasing out F now.

  24. @Donald – I saw only one wine holder left after they got through the first two rows of 777 business on a recent flight. They definitely weren’t replenished for the rest of the cabin. I also asked about getting a mattress pad and they said they were only stocked for Polaris First.

  25. @AL

    The planes out of IAH are no different than any other hub…

    Try to get a 777-300, which features the new Polaris hard product (seat). I would connect in ORD for this lounge (unless you are only able to fly the 777-300 via IAH, in which case I would go for the new seat).

  26. Good review. I have been there 4 times now and I can tell you when no one sits at the tables for sit down meals……… I had no idea they offered it! There is nothing to me that denoted this at all, so I would think some awareness should be made in some fashion as I would have enjoyed my stay much more. Is this only avialble if you happen to find a seat in the 6 tables and 5 booths? if so that is disappointing.

    The buffet is short on offerings I must say and there is room to utilize it more IMO. The drink selection is fine and enough options are there.

    The showers are great and the bathrooms are great! These are two prime amenities that I look for an appreciate in a lounge. I haven’t used the daybeds as I wasn’t on a layover to necessitate them, however I would prefer an actual twin bed to that lounger. Good to have the option, but with limited hours of operation 7:15AM to 9:00PM it doesn’t surprise me they aren’t utilized more. The entry space doesn’t seem utilized as good as it can be. You could push the entrance to where the signage actually is and use the present space used as the check in desk as additional lounge space which would increase capacity.

    I don’t know the expansion plan you mentioned, but any space to increase would be valuable to the experience.

    I want to note you DO HAVE ACCESS AS AN ARRIVING POLARIS BIZ PASSENGER!

  27. Thanks! Still be able to have a look inside. Looks GREAT ! Denied access with Swiss F boarding pass. Will have to try again when on UA itinerary next time

  28. @eric — You were denied access when flying ORD-ZRH in F? Sounds like someone violated policy.

    In general, I think there are a few reasons few people avail themselves of a la carte dining:
    1) They are short on time and would rather grab something that’s right there and then relax/work.
    2) Sometimes when traveling people are exhausted or have a long journey ahead and want to minimize interactions in the lounge.
    3) People mistakenly believe they’d have to pay.
    4) People don’t want to have to tip even if the food itself is free.
    5) People are simply unaware of the offering.

    I think 3-5 are the most salient reasons.

  29. @Jose

    For my flights, the only planes are 777-200 going out of both hubs unless something changes in between now and March. The ones flying out of Chicago have a 2-4-2 configuration and the ones flying out of Houston have a 2-2-2 configuration. (Version 1 vs. Version 2 at the following link.) I’ve read a few unfavorable reviews about the seats in the 2-4-2 version unfortunately.

    https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/inflight/aircraft/777/200/default.aspx

  30. “@Xtina
    Is this true about UA stopping the wine flights for Polaris international travel? They don’t use those 3-glass holders anymore?”

    I flew from NRT to SFO Polaris Class on Nov. 7. I asked for the wine-tasting course, and the steward was more than happy to oblige with three glasses of wine in the curved holder. And he offered me a refill when I was through.

    /Users/kdecker/Pictures/iPhoto Library.photolibrary/Previews/2017/11/17/20171117-021611/BF8osJcsSOC9VBGgWLYY1g/IMG_1065.jpg

    Originally, my flight was reserved for NRT – ORD, but it got cancelled, so I had to rebook on an earlier flight to SFO and then on to ORD. I was really looking forward to using the ORD Polaris Club in the late afternoon and early evening on my arrival, since I have only experienced it in the morning. A bummer, but on the plus side I got to experience the Polaris hard product for the first time (quite nice, but feels like having a small cubicle in an office with little passenger interaction) and UA gave me a 10,000 point bonus for the inconvenience. NRT-ORD is my primary route, so all my layovers at ORD are from 5 to 6 hours long, which is just fine with me as long as I can get into the Polaris Club.

  31. I don’t understand the hype with this lounge. It’s too small, often wildly overcrowded, and not at all relaxing. The food selection is absurdly limited.

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